NEW YORK — Paper and pens are just the beginning of back-to-school expenses for a growing number of families.
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State and local governments are cutting back, leading more public school districts to charge kids to compete in sports or play in the band. Such fees, commonly known as "pay-to-participate" or "pay-to-play" cropped up in the 1980s.
Initially, most of the extra fees were tied to athletics, particularly expensive sports like football and hockey.
Researching schools in Ohio in the late 1990s as part of his research for his PhD, Scott Smith found that about 20 percent of its school districts required some fees to play sports.
Today the practice is proliferating, said Smith, now chairman of the Department of Physical Education & Sport at Central Michigan University.
"Across the country, there's kind of a national phenomenon taking place," he said. "Obviously school budgets are being cut everywhere, and as school budgets are cut extracurriculars are cut."
And it's not just sports. From Connecticut to Arizona, districts are adding fees to participate in after-school clubs, music programs and other activities.
The price tags vary — some districts charge more for expensive sports while others set flat rates. It's not uncommon for districts to set an annual cap for families with more than one student enrolled in a school.
Payson High School in Payson, Ariz., for instance, assesses a $200 sports participation fee for students to try out and play one of 14 sports. A second sport is $50. There is no charge for a third sport, and fees are capped at $400 per family. The school also charges fees for certain electives: $20 for art or business and $40 for computer tech, for example.
These fees help defray the costs of equipment, uniforms, transportation and sometimes coaches or advisors. In some districts they might be designated as transportation fees or given some other label, depending on local regulations.
Such fees are also are cropping up in middle school programs. That's why Huntington Bank is highlighting pay-to-play fees in its annual "Backpack Index," a yearly look at the costs of going back to school.
"We just want to bring attention to the fact that these fees are increasingly required, and they're not going to go away," said Brent Wilder, a spokesman for the Columbus, Ohio-based bank that operates in six Midwestern states.
By surveying national chain retail store prices for a list of supplies and fees typically required for the various grade levels, including a backpack to carry it all in, Huntington determined that parents of elementary school students can expect to pay an average $530 this year. That's up from $474 last year, an increase of almost 12 percent.
For middle school students, costs will rise to an average $682, from $545 in 2010 — up 25 percent.
Expenses for high school students, which include college-prep materials for taking tests like the SAT, jumped to an average $1,094 from $1,003, a 9 percent increase.
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"As a parent, your child comes home the first day with the actual list of supplies, which hasn't changed much over the years," said Huntington Bank spokeswoman Maureen Brown. "Then they come home the next day and they want to play a sport. Then they want to play an instrument."
"You don't think of all these things," she added.
That means these fees can't be overlooked when families write up a back-to-school budget.
Brown said this year had the largest increase in back-to-school costs since the Huntington began its index six years ago, largely because of the increase in fees.
Preparing to head back to the classroom — and the playing field — can be used as a way to teach kids about planning and making choices. It's an opportunity for parents to sit down with their children, examine the list of items that are needed, and talk about what is affordable.
Here are some tips for getting started:
- Many school districts make their lists of required supplies available before classes start, so check the school website or contact administrators in advance of the first day to find out what's required.
- If money is tight, it's worthwhile to ask a few extra questions about what is needed when classes start, and what can wait until later in the school year.
- Scour the house for pencils, scissors, crayons and other supplies left over from last year. For young kids, this can be a game akin to a scavenger hunt, with the reward for the winner being a few extra dollars to spend toward a special item.
- Avoid branded items and supplies linked to popular culture. Expect stores to be stocked with Harry Potter-themed supplies, for instance, which are likely to carry a bigger price tag. Discuss this ahead of time and agree on whether the family can afford those extras.
- Take your kids, especially young kids, shopping with you and get them involved in picking out items and hunting down bargains.
- Use cash at the checkout, or use the opportunity to explain how debit or credit cards work.
- Determine what the fees for various activities will be, and when they need to be paid. If your school doesn't cap fees by family, or your children want to try multiple sports, it might help to encourage them to earn some money before summer is over to help pay the fees.
- If fees are not affordable, contact your school or district and explain the hardship. Most schools will reduce or waive fees for students unable to pay.
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